On foreign policy, former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel is one of the good guys: knowledgeable, thoughtful, responsible, and non-ideological. He's shown a consistent willingness to question his party's verities. He courageously challenged the Bush administration's Iraq war policies, he opposed the nomination of ultra neo-con John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations, he's opposed trigger-happiness over Iran, and he's even been willing to question the most sacred cow of all: blind U.S. support of Israel, come what may.
He's also the wrong choice for defense secretary.
1. He's a Republican
Nominating Hagel for SecDef sends the world a simple message: even Democrats don't really think Democrats are capable of running the Defense Department. Three of the last four secretaries of defense have been Republicans -- and two of the three were appointed by Democrats. If President Obama nominates Chuck Hagel, Republicans will be four for five.
Some argue that by appointing his second Republican secretary of defense, President Obama will be making a gracious bipartisan gesture, one that will buy him respect and -- perhaps -- greater cooperation from Republicans in Congress. But that's wishful thinking. The current crop of Republicans on the Hill are already reasonably cooperative on defense issues, and they've made it amply clear that they're not interested in cooperating with the Obama administration on non-defense matters. Nominating Chuck Hagel as SecDef won't change that.
All nominating Hagel will do is needlessly undermine Democratic efforts to eliminate the so-called "national security deficit." Since Vietnam, the Republican Party has been viewed by voters as the most-trusted party on defense issues. Democrats have fought hard to change that, and in the last few years, they've finally seen some success: as Matt Bennett and Jeremy Rosner recently noted, voters this November said they trusted Obama and Romney equally on national security, and gave Obama a 12 point edge on "international affairs."
But nominating Hagel risks ceding much of the ground Democrats fought so hard to gain. A Hagel nomination will suggest to voters that when it comes to defense, even President Obama has a sneaking suspicion that Republicans are better than Democrats. Is that really a smart message for the president to send?